“This time Dussera will not be fun,” said 10-year Geetika flopping down on her pillow. “Ever since Daddy passed away in that car crash two years back… things have been a lot different,” she continued twisting a strand of her dark curly hair on her index finger. “Uncle Satya does try … but it is just not the same…”
Her brother, Vishnu, elder to her by four years nodded and said, “Yeah… even Mummy is different now… we no longer live in that big house near the bank but in this apartment on the second floor and have to travel in buses everyday… but we did go to the cinema hall last week…”
“And uncle Satya does help me with my homework,” said five- year old Varun Iyer, the youngest of the children.
“You hardly get any homework,” said his sister getting up. “But this time even uncle Satya cannot make Dussera fun… remember Daddy used to take us to see a movie– to the park and in the evening… Ram Leela…”
“I guess it will be different,” agreed Vishnu slowly. “Last year Mummy was so busy moving… no one remembered…”
Vishnu and his sister sighed and little Varun frowned—a pudgy line on his small brown forehead.
A short distance away, Lalitha Iyer, mother to the three Iyer children, widow of senior engineer, Suresh Iyer, and elder sister to paralegal, Satya Karnal, was also thinking along the same lines, standing in a crowded Delhi city bus on this evening in October. The clock had turned five p.m. a good quarter of an hour ago and Lalitha Iyer had made her way to the office bus stop and dutifully squeezed her way into the overflowing city bus.
“The wonders of Delhi Transportation,” she now mused struggling to maintain her footing in the bus.
“Dussera had been a special time for the kids and Suresh but now… what was she going to do? Satya offered no suggestions… he really was useless,” her mind lifted a cautionary finger as her mental train of thoughts rambled on, “He had come and stayed on… putting up with the kids’ tantrums and a lot of tension…” The bus stopped with a jerk, and Lalitha Iyer looked out of the grimy window – the bus had stopped at Khan Market – only three more stops to go and then she would be home. She sighed – a deep sigh like a chimney bellowing huge gusts of smoke!
At the opposite end of the capital city, paralegal Satya Karnal was wrapping up a busy day of work. He stowed away the file he had been working the entire day and picked up his office bag, “Time to go home and do another kind of duty…” he shook his head trotting down the steps into the gloomy evening light. His life had changed since his brother-in-law had been suddenly killed in a car crash and he being the sole remaining Karnal had assumed the responsibility of sharing his sister’s grief and troubles. He had not been so affected even when his father had passed away peacefully in his sleep before he had begun crawling. His mother had bid him farewell when she had pushed him into this world 25 years ago.
A kindly family friend had taken both brother and sister in. And now tragedy had struck again two years back, but this time he had been old and wise to shoulder the responsibility and move in with his sister and three children. He had sacrificed a lot. The bus stopped churning and dropping people like flies from a honey-pot. Satya grimaced – this was one of the things he did not like about the Capital City. The buses were a panacea – but then he had grown to adore the pulsating beat of this great city – the diversity of languages, traditions, colors, and ethnicities – all stewing together in a big melting cauldron! Satya Karnal clawed his way into the bus and managed to find a seat. He collapsed breathing hard! Now onto home – somehow the idea was not awfully pleasing and relaxing! He closed his eyes as the bus gently started humming incessantly.
Back home in the small bedroom of the three children—with a bunk bed and a camp bed adorning the four corners of the pale lime colored room with long yellow flowered curtains, Geetika Iyer was sprawled on the bed watching her elder brother, Vishnu flip through his history textbook.
“I think Vishnu needs to have his own room,” said the considerate sister sitting up.
Her brother drew himself up to his full height of five feet nine inches and stroked the faint black line of a moustache adorning his upper lip. “Geetika… I am fine… don’t go about causing problems please! Just adjust…!”
“I just want things to be the same… and I know things are different… even Dussera is going to be different now…” his sister was shouting. Vishnu sighed and picking up his books went into the living room. The door bell sounded and he jumped. He looked outside from the small window – darkness was enveloping. Muttering he opened the door to reveal his mother with disheveled hair and angry frown lines. Lalitha Iyer came in, and soon the usual evening routine swung into action.
Lalitha Iyer dried the dishes and walked into the dining room. The TV was on and she switched it off. Quelling protests from her daughter and brother, she sat down and began, “Dussera is this Sunday and this time we are going to celebrate it in a traditional different way…”
Lalitha cleared her throat—she could really do with some brotherly support but then Satya never did anything unless told, but back to the present — mission at hand.
“I thought this time we could celebrate Dussera like I and your uncle used to when we were small…”
“I remember,” now Satya had managed to find his vocal chords, thought his elder sister, thank the Lord for small mercies.
“We had a ‘bamalakolu’ and it used to be great fun…”
“And what is that?” Geetika’s scowl was now fleeing her brown oval face to other facial lands.
“Well…” began her mother drawing her youngest to her, “we used to arrange all dolls, toys in a circle… have a puja… wear traditional clothes…”
“Like a dolls’ party,” said Varun.
“Doesn’t sound fun… sounds boring…”
“I assure you, dear niece,” said Satya yawning, “it is great fun… taking all toys… washing them, dressing them up and then arranging them in a theme like in a boat shape or leaf shape…”
“And it doesn’t have to be only your toys but all figurines in the house…”
“But why?” demanded her daughter. “Isn’t Dussera all about Ravan and Lord Ram killing him?”
“Dussera is much more that,” said her mother. “In Andhra Pradesh and many other states of southern India, Dussera celebrations begin with decorating and worshipping dolls for nine days… we won’t do it for nine days… just two days … tomorrow and Saturday”
“But why do we do this?” asked Vishnu scratching his head.
His mother smiled and continued, “In olden days girls used to be married off when they about 11-12 and so they used to play with their dolls and used to decorate them with the elders at their in-laws place… it was a way to bring the elders and the young daughter in-law closer… it originally began with arranging nine female dolls to represent the nine feminine forms of Durga Devi… Durga, Bhadrakali, Chandika, Lalita, Annapurna, Bhavani, Bhairavi, Amba, Mookambika,” said Lalitha Iyer holding up and counting on her thin fingers…
“One of them is your name,” said Varun.
His mother nodded and continued, “and this was followed by a grand puja where the entire village was invited…. Lord Rama, Goddess Durga, Saraswati, and Laxmi were worshipped… then in the evening, the girl and her family dressed up in finery and went to the temple… then on the last day when Durga Devi was worshipped people would also worship their tools of their trade or profession like your uncle Satya would worship his lawyer books… you, on the other hand, being students will worship your pens and pencils, books and schoolbags… this day is also known as VijayDasmi…”
“But we will do the modern version of it,” said Satya grinning. “We will have our dolls party, do the puja… eat sweets and in the evening go to Ram Leela… we will celebrate Dussera in the south and North Indian tradition.”
“What about VijayDasmi?” said Geetika.
“We will celebrate that also on Sunday… “Now doesn’t that sound fun?”
Geetika nodded slowly as Vishnu’s thin spectacled face broke into a broad smile.
“So tomorrow gather up all your toys… wash them and sit them near our God’s corner OK,” said Lalitha— that was it… problem solved and everyone was happy… this time Dussera would be different.
The next morning brought with it the usual rush, as Lalitha and Satya Karnal managed to get ready in office attire and leave for their office at sharp eight in the morning. Vishnu Iyer closed the front door and could still hear his mother’s tone in the distance shouting instructions. He shook his head; if she didn’t hurry… she would miss the bus and be late for work. He rubbed his hands as if preparing to go into battle and then admitted to himself wryly, “dealing with Geetika was like fighting a battle!”
Soon, all three children had had breakfast and cleaned the house. “Now time to find the dolls,” announced little Varun.
Geetika raised her brows and said, “It’s not a treasure hunt… everything is right here… I will get all my soft toys and Barbie…”
“How about that dinosaur which Dad had got me last birthday?” said Vishnu eyes feasting on the algebra equations on the notebook page. “I can never get the hang of this x and y… why make everything so complicated?”
His sister paid no heed to his remark and continued, “It’s still in the suitcase… why don’t we call Uncle Satya and ask him to help us?”
“Great idea,” said Varun. “We need all the help we can get.”
“Er,” began Vishnu looking up from his book. “I don’t think Uncle Satya would like that… he just left for office… he’ll be pretty mad if we call and ask him to come back”
“Oof!” said Geetika. “Why do you always have to raise roadblocks and why don’t you study instead?”
“I thought I was doing that… hey Varun I don’t think you should call him”
But Varun was already in the room dialing. In a remarkably short time, he came striding back grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“What happened? What did you say?” said his sister breathlessly. She had just come from their bedroom and was carrying soft toys. She threw them on the floor and began sorting them.
“I told him to come home as it was an emergency.”
Vishnu dropped his book on the table with a thud. “What did he say?”
“Didn’t wait,” said Varun.
“What do you mean?” said his brother.
“We have limited time…” snapped Geetika. “What does it matter… he is coming and that’s all that matters.”
Vishnu sighed. “He is not going to like this… stunt you two have pulled.”
The bell rang, and Varun said, “That’s Uncle… now he can also help us…”
Geetika ran to open the door and now ensconced in the other bedroom, Vishnu heard loud raised voices and grinned nastily.
Outside Satya Karnal was trying to wrap his head around the “supposed” emergency. “You called me so that I could come and help you with your toys.”
“You got it,” said Varun triumphantly. “We have all our soft toys”
“Why did you call me then?” said Satya flopping down on the brown-upholstered sofa. “Seems you have everything under control.”
“Not really,” said Geetika perching on the sofa arm, “We need you to locate the blue suitcase… the one which no one unpacked…”
Satya sighed noisily – these children were too much!
“Why didn’t you get Vishnu to help?” he asked untying his shoe laces.
Geetika waved a hand airly. “Anna is playing with x and y… no time to do important things… “
Satya made a face and followed his niece and nephew into their bedroom. The rest of the day passed in finding toys and figurines and washing them.
“Don’t dismantle the toys Varun – it’s very hard to put them back on….” said Satya screwing a head to the body of a doll. “I think I have done this wrong…” he continued looking down at his handiwork. The doll sporting a head full of jet-black hair woven in two plaits smiled brightly, seemingly happy with her modern attire of a spacesuit.
Geetika emitted a short scream, “What have you done? Aasha is wearing a sari and not a spacesuit. “
“At least I am trying,” her Uncle was defending himself. “Look at him… he is stripping the dolls naked and dismantling them,” he finished pointing at Varun.
Geetika boxed her brother’s ears and said, “Why don’t both of you go to the kitchen and help Vishnu in making lunch”
Satya shook his head and hauling Varun up like a sack of potatoes, he went into the kitchen. Left to her own devices, Geetika bathed the dolls, dressed them, cleaned the puja-corner and arranged the dolls in an oval shape. Evening brought mother Lalitha Iyer to the fold of activities.
“It looks beautiful,” said the admiring mother. “But we can still have some more figurines – what about that ship Vishnu made in his carpentry class? “
The additions were made and the festive “bomalakolu” looked complete.
“So tomorrow, we will wash the front door floor and make a design to welcome Durga Devi,” said Lalitha fondling Varun’s hair. “But the design must have nine points to represent the nine avatars of Durga Devi and are we going to invite anyone to our ‘bamalakolu?”
There was a silence, “are we supposed to invite anyone?” said Geetika.
“Usually you do. But it is your wish”
“OK… I will invite our neighbors,” said Vishnu. Yawning mightily he mumbled, “I am going to bed…. have to get up early in the morning to study…”
Everybody followed suit, and the Iyer house on the second floor of Nilgiri Apartments was bathed in darkness.
Geetika Iyer felt like a celestial being pouring mugs of water on the dry parched floor of the small front porch. The sun had risen at six o’ clock on this auspicious Saturday morning propelling everyone in the Iyer household into action. Vishnu and Varun Iyer put the final finishing touches to their dolls party, adding the dolls’ house, and two stuffed giraffes to the static party. And the feline clan of the household had graced the small front porch of the apartment to wash, clean and draw the design on the floor with aplomb. Geetika was pursuing her duty seriously.
“Too seriously,” thought Satya screwing up his nose as his niece splashed another mugful of water triumphantly. “Err… I think that’s enough,” Satya said. “You better stop…. at this rate we will end up washing the floor of the entire building!”
His niece frowned and stopped. Ducking inside the apartment she yelled, “Amma! Come on”
Lalitha Iyer appeared and squatted on the floor with a stick of white chalk saying breathlessly, “Now I am making the design, which is called the “mugu”…”
“Amma,”interrupted her daughter. “Please we don’t need the commentary”
Lalitha Iyer glared at her daughter. “Just shut up!” she barked. “And after this all of us will go the temple. And on the way we can invite people…”
“All of us are ready,” Satya said rubbing his eyes. “Only you have to get ready…”
Lalitha Iyer disappeared inside shouting instructions, “There is milk on the gas stove. Put it off after it gets thick… and also drain the rice.”
Vishnu nudged his Uncle who had come into the small dining room and was critically appraising the bamalakolu.
“I think those instructions are for you.”
Satya Karnal shrugged and went into the kitchen. In another hour, the entire family was trudging gamely to the neighborhood temple.
“Remember, we have to invite people,” said Lalitha Ier skirting around a pothole.
They finally reached the nondescript temple and paid their respects to the holy deities of Goddess Laxmi and Durga.
Geetika and Vishnu broke away from the group to invite a few neighbors to their house in the evening. Satya Karnal, Lalitha Iyer, and Varun Iyer made their way home. Lalitha Iyer busied herself preparing the “bellam palam pongal” a sweet delicacy of Andhra Pradesh. Satya ground the jaggery into small flakes to mix into the milk. Varun watched his mother portion the cooked rice into two parts. The former portion was mixed into the sweetened milk, while the latter was put into a round dish for the “pulihara” or saffron rice. The bell rang and their neighbors from the first floor had come to see the bamalakolu. Mrs. Ailyam and her six year- old daughter dutifully admired it. Soon, other people also came, and it became evident that the bamalakolu was a hit, and a novel idea, never done in this part of cosmopolitan New Delhi. Evening came, and the children left for the Ram Leela grounds to watch the Dusssera play.
Morning and the tenth day of Dussera i.e. VijaDasmi dawned. School books, pens, pencils were placed in front of the deity of Goddess Durga. Dressed in traditional puja attire, Satya Karnal performed the ritual of reading the story of Dussera followed by the puja. Clad in a green pavda, as bright as the plumes of a peacock, adorned with blue zari glass work, Geetika was all smiles as she watched her uncle in his white lungi mouth religious chants. Bedsides her, her mother wrapped in a pale yellow sari sat with head bowed. Prasadam or sweet cooked vermicelli was offered to the Goddess.
“May Goddess Durga help you to concentrate and emerge victorious in your studies,” said Lalitha.
“I really need all the help I can get,” muttered Vishnu.
Geetika giggled. Satya finished his monotonous monologue and closed the puja book. Lalitha Iyer stood up and moved towards the kitchen to bring the dishes to set the table for lunch.
Satya got up holding the dish with the “Prasadam” and set it on the table. The family sat down to lunch.
“In the evening before going to Ram Leela, take your books back OK,” said Lalitha Iyer cleaning the dining-room table. There were murmurs of assent and Lalitha Iyer smiled thinking—yes it had been a different kind of Dussera for all of them.